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How to get Putin to negotiate? Strategy and resolve

Roman Goncharenko
June 29, 2024

Ukraine has already begun planning for another peace summit later this year. But two German diplomats told DW they doubt Russia will negotiate an end to its war in Ukraine any time soon.

President Vladimir Putin sits in a chair at a table, holding a meeting
Conditions are not yet right for dialogue between Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Russian President Vladimir Putin, diplomats told DWImage: Vyacheslav Prokofyev/ITAR-TASS/IMAGO

Ukraine is already busy organizing another peace summit in a just a few months' time, following the first high-level conference in Switzerland in mid-June.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy wants to maintain the pace of his diplomatic offensive and has announced "new concrete" steps for July. These apparently involve working groups for a Ukrainian peace plan. Meanwhile, media reports have singled out Saudi Arabia as a possible host.

Around 80 countries took part in the first conference, though Russia was not invited and China stayed away.

Discussion included topics such as free trade routes, nuclear security and prisoner swaps. Participants also opened a diplomatic door for future Russian participation.

Achieving peace in Ukraine "requires the involvement of and dialogue between all parties," according to the joint communique adopted at the summit. But does that mean there is now a chance for real peace negotiations in the third year of war?

EU, Ukraine sign long-term security pact

DW spoke with two prominent German diplomats to get their take on how to end Russia's war against Ukraine: Rüdiger von Fritsch, former ambassador to Moscow and former vice president of the Federal Intelligence Service; and Christoph Heusgen, head of the Munich Security Conference and former foreign policy adviser to Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Putin has 'no interest in ending this war'

Even before the conference in Switzerland, when Russian President Vladimir Putin presented his vision for a cease-fire, the irreconcilable positions were evident, both diplomats said.

Moscow's conditions for ending its war on Ukraine are that Kyiv withdraw its army from four areas in the south and east that were annexed by Russia in 2022, in addition to renouncing its intention to join NATO.

Rüdiger von Fritsch, Germany's former ambassador to Moscow (archive photo)
Rüdiger von Fritsch is Germany's former ambassador to Moscow Image: DW

Von Fritsch, however, said at the moment Putin has "absolutely no interest in ending this war if his aggression is rewarded in the end," which would be the case if his proposals are taken on board.

Putin's offer is "not meant seriously at all," Heusgen said, adding that the Russian president was more interested in "throwing sand in the gears" of the Swiss conference to gauge the reaction.

West needs 'staying power'

As such, both diplomats said they doubt negotiations will be possible any time soon. First of all, "Putin must recognize the legitimate government of Ukraine and President Zelenskyy as partners in talks," said Heusgen.

But just last month, Putin questioned Zelenskyy's legitimacy when the formal end of his regular term of office was automatically extended in accordance with Ukrainian law, which dictates there can be no elections when martial law is in place.

Top diplomat Christoph Heusgen at the Munich Security Conference in February 2024
Top diplomat Christoph Heusgen heads up the annual Munich Security ConferenceImage: Matthias Schrader/AP/picture alliance

Furthermore, Russia would first need to abide by the UN Charter, said Heusgen, and recognize Ukraine's sovereignty, independence and internationally recognized borders — a point also made in the final Swiss summit communique. "I see the only chance for peace being if Ukraine is put back in a position of strength in this conflict," added Heusgen.

Russia is far from recognizing the Ukrainian position, so it's unlikely "that we will have a conference in the fall with Russia's participation," he said, underscoring that Ukraine and its partners in the West will need "staying power."

Strengthen Ukraine, sanction Russia

Heusgen added that many in the West are reluctant to hear that in the event of an agreement with Russia, Ukraine would need stronger security guarantees.

A bombed-out residential building after a Russian raid on Kharkiv in June
Russia has scaled up attacks on Kharkiv in recent monthsImage: Ukrainian Emergency Service/AP/picture alliance

"In my view, an agreement with Russia can only be bearable for Ukraine if it is accompanied by NATO membership," he said.

Ukraine has had assurances that it will be able join NATO since 2008, but still does not have candidate status.

Von Fritsch also isn't banking on quick diplomatic successes. The former ambassador in Moscow said Putin would only enter into substantial negotiations if his power within Russia were in question.

"Vladimir Putin must constantly buy the approval of the population at home. He rules his country with repression, propaganda and constant bribery," said von Fritsch.

While sanctions have already put the Russian economy under pressure, the Kremlin also fears the unexpected — such as an uprising that could destabilize its power.

A woman is arrested during protest of a Russia's military mobilization in Moscow in September 2022
The Kremlin does not tolerate dissent. Here, a woman is arrested during protest of a Russia's partial military mobilization in September 2022Image: Alexander Nemenov/AFP

Von Fritsch cited two such examples from the 1980s: protests by Soviet soldiers' mothers against the war in Afghanistan, and the mass demonstrations by the Solidarity trade union under leader Lech Walesa, which brought down the communist system in Poland.

"Putin is afraid of that," said von Fritsch. "And you have to bring him to that point. If he comes to this conclusion, then he'll be ready to talk."

How? Strengthen Ukraine and impose further sanctions against Russia, he said.

This article was originally written in German.